The Loneliness—and Comfort—of Being Online
I’m into the internet as a gateway to systems of care—the kind of care that turns a sad finsta post into a spontaneous visit, a phone call, a gift; turns a silent question into 1,000 late-night answers, turns the monster within into a collective hum.
Illustration by Elnora Turner.
This essay originally appeared in the Privacy & Perception Issue of Vice Magazine, created in collaboration with Broadly. You can read more stories from the issue here.
Sometimes when I am in bed I frown because I feel a sharp pain inside one of my stomach rolls or on my arm or behind my knee and I take a look and what I find is that I’m being burned by the overheated white square part of my computer charger and when the pain subsides I smile because it’s nice to have something warm in my bed. Sometimes I catch a view of my legs in the bed with all the wires and the hairs and the differently sized screens and it’s like watching a family through a window. I feel sick because if there was an apocalypse tomorrow I don’t know what I would do to help and my least favorite thing is to feel useless, which is one of the reasons I love the internet.
Two or three times a week I stop what I am doing because I am panicking. I am panicking because I’ve remembered I have no idea what the internet is, either physically or conceptually, like what the fuck is an email, is this a womb or a war zone, why are my nudes in the sky, who is my king now. My brain then automatically presents me with the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where Mike Teavee is transmitted from one part of the room to the other, followed by a short clip of the early 2000s British exercise show for toddlers, Boohbah, and I return to whatever task is at hand. I mean I don’t know what the internet is, and I don’t particularly want to excavate anything personal about it for VICE, anything “identity” about anything, but I’m broke and easily flattered and I want something to put on the internet.
Working in mental health you hear a lot about the loneliness epidemic, about how it’s killing people faster than the rest of the stuff that’s killing people, about how the internet has made it worse. I’m so far gone at this point that I am genuinely surprised when people tell me they are straight, no less that they believe the internet makes us lonely. Maybe these are the same people who think the internet invented echo chambers or maybe they find validation IRL, I don’t know, but I find myself fighting this idea dutifully and often from a position of complete personal loneliness.
Sluts will still be sluts, right, after the internet? Like, anxious people will still be anxious, and if I want to find a way to be witnessed slow grinding to Usher I still will. While I was writing this I bumped into a friend and he told me about a tweet he saw once that was like, “being human was still stupid before smartphones.” And I’m like, “exactly dude, exactly.”
When I was younger and people would ask that weird ice-breaker question about which decade you would want to live in if not this one, I would feel uncomfortable and confused and a bit nauseous and never really knew why, and now I realize it’s because I would rather have my queer arse be killed by Sophia the robot than inhabit any single version of the past.
Sometimes a friend will read something on the internet about how the planet has survived mass extinctions before this one, about how maybe this isn’t the end, that Earth can take it, that we might survive. That makes me nervous, too. I enjoy thinking about the millennial apocalypse because a key feature of it is like, no WiFi, like the past existing in the future, and I suppose I can relate to that kind of time travel. If an imagined future with no internet brings me peace, it’s not because I dislike the internet, it’s because the world is fucked and I am interested in opportunities to disappear.
Thanks to the internet, I built a 300-strong record collection by the age of 14 and was slightly famous on “Funky Monks,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers message board, for my extensive collection of bootlegs, and willingness to trade globally. My username was Metal_of_India, a term of endearment I found reading Shakespeare, and a vague nod to my second love, books, and my heritage. My choice always made me a little uncomfortable but I tried not to overthink it.
A few weeks ago I chose the username Exotica_Fatigue for my Seeking Arrangements profile and around the same time noticed that my Instagram friends had become adverts. Sometimes I feel like the internet has made us numb and then I remember it’s just a reflection of a society that numbness is an adaptive response to. We know so much, and yet I, too, have laid my head on a white man’s chest and felt peace.
I have stopped trying to explain the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to Americans because it is like talking to a decommissioned robot even though it does not take very long because it’s just ~free healthcare for everybody~. I see lights turn off and shutters come down and their heads nod but they do not compute because in a society where you consider yourself “lucky” to be able to pay $1 million a year to have conditional access to the utter hellscape that is care in this country, it is perhaps not wise or possible to think outside of it for too long.
People are lonely in England, too, though the myth of post-racialism is lonely and allyship is tired. The NHS saved my life for free, but I still programmed my phone to ask me how I was feeling at random intervals three times a day. I still shared cyber hugs with white people on bipolar support forums. I still learned how to eat and meditate following the advice of careful strangers in Facebook groups, learned that my instincts for protection and my frenzied exhaustion made sense actually, that I was not alone, that I was alone but I could be safe there, that it was OK to laugh at it all.
Living by myself for the first time since my brief attempt at living on a houseboat during a manic episode in 2013, I’m the least lonely I’ve ever been, or like, I’m not as lonely as I thought I’d be. You know, loneliness isn’t always about physical isolation; it’s as much about being forced to share space, ideas, and intimacy with systems that will never really try to understand you, with people who will never say sorry when they let you down. Sometimes loneliness is not having the means to opt out. The internet gave us space.
My friend, the poet El Roy Red, texted me recently: “Seeing a million interracial couples... then I realized, every relationship I’m in is an interracial relationship, including w myself lol.” I’m like, “same.” I’m like, I don’t experience loneliness because of the internet, I’m lonely because there is no one else like me. No one else made up of all these parts that I refuse to name for anyone anymore but that I sit with, a new model, waiting for everyone to catch up and yet hoping they never do.
I’m into the internet as a gateway to systems of care. And not the tacky care of a white woman; not the pressured care of a psychiatrist or the just love, love, love yourself, you’re worth it kind of care, but the kind of care that turns a sad finsta post into a spontaneous visit, a phone call, a gift; turns a silent question into 1,000 late-night answers, turns the monster within into a collective hum.
I’m not religious but who doesn’t want to live forever? I’m not religious but I do wonder sometimes if all my blocked exes keep each other company. A few weeks ago, someone on Tinder sent me a message saying, “My tooth hurts,” and I replied, “Sometimes I dream of a cottage with two chairs outside, where the bears are. We are safe, you and I, but I cry anyway and you ask me why and I tell you it’s because you’re so beautiful.”
There’s that moment at the party when someone asks where you two met and you say “the internet,” swallowing your words with a giggle. It used to be accompanied with such a real flush of hot embarrassment, nasty, like burnt hair, and then at some point we were ready to let go of the shame. Now we will enthusiastically recall the story of how we stalked each other for months before taking turns methodically following each other on multiple platforms, eventually becoming friends, lovers, or something shared but undefined. I guess we’re ready to own it because everything matters less now, because loneliness sells, because the internet is a planet and I guess it sucks because we are the aliens we’ve been searching for.
- mental health
- Social Media
- personal essay
- echo chambers
- Broadly Identity
- Broadly Life
- Broadly The Privacy and Perception Issue